House Speaker Matt Ritter and a bipartisan group of lawmakers at a press conference on Feb. 18, 2022 Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers announced a sprawling set of legislative proposals Friday designed to collectively address dire shortfalls in the availability of mental health services for Connecticut children. 

During a late-morning press conference in the state Capitol building, representatives from both parties unveiled a 103-page bill containing more than 70 sections with provisions largely aimed at developing a mental health treatment workforce, a sector revealed to be woefully inadequate to handle the surge of need? Fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“A lot of lives and a lot of young lives have been impacted by the pandemic, and a mental health crisis that existed prior to the pandemic, it is only worsened now,” House Minority Leader Jason Rojas said. “It seems over the last couple of months, every other day, I’m talking with a friend or a colleague, or someone at work, whose child is experiencing something like this.”

The issue has emerged as a central concern for both parties during this year’s session. Beginning last fall, lawmakers held hearings and listened to testimony describing parents unable to find behavioral health providers for their suffering children and kids relegated to the bottom of months-long waiting lists. 

Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have proposed their own sets of policies aimed at addressing the long-standing problem. Meanwhile, Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget proposal set aside $160 million for new behavioral health funding. 

Lawmakers have yet to price out the sweeping set of investments they have called for, but said some of the spending will be covered by federal pandemic relief funding. 

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Among its many provisions, the bill proposes to expand funding for the training and hiring of mental health providers. It will include money for towns to hire counselors and social workers to engage students in schools. It would expand telehealth programs and remove barriers to insurance coverage of mental health treatment. 

House Speaker Matt Ritter said it was important that the House proposal had buy-in from members of both political parties. 

“Historic changes do not happen often when it is one-sided. We will have our disagreements, we will have votes that go one way or the other,” Ritter said. “But this is an opportunity to bring people together and show the state and show the country what happens when folks work together.”

Rep. Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland, said lawmakers worked across the aisle to craft every provision of the proposal. Nuccio called the legislation a work in progress.

“Is this bill perfect? No. By no means, it’s not. But by bringing it forward to the public hearing process, this framework is now open to the process and to have input to help us be better,” Nuccio said. A public hearing has been scheduled on the House bill for next Friday. 

Republican Rep. William Petit, a formerly-practicing doctor from Plainville, agreed, saying that input from frontline providers would be critical to improving the legislation. But Petit said the legislation was off to a good start. 

“Really one of my toughest jobs is attempting to get someone into mental health care, and especially if they had a dual diagnosis if they had substance abuse and another mental health issue,” Petit said. “Very difficult. So I think that the big issue, which is a long term issue, five, 10, 15 years is to increase the number of providers.”

Howard Sovronsky, chief behavioral health officer at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, joined the legislators for the press conference and called the bill a historic effort to elevate the mental health needs of Connecticut children. 

“The broad spectrum of proposals contained in this legislation reflects the public private partnership and collaboration that recognizes the many voices of those most concerned about children’s mental health,” Sovronsky said.